By Lindsay Roberts, Early Childhood teacher and member of the Early Childhood Diversity Committee at Germantown Friends School
Published by NBC's Parent Toolkit in December 2019
At school or at home, adults can provide a framework for young children to embrace different perspectives and diverse cultures, reducing bias and fostering empathy.
Multiple studies, including research at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE) at the University of Toronto, have documented that children as early as six months old notice and react to race and show signs of racial bias.
With this developmental process in mind, families and teachers can help turn the concept of differences into something to celebrate. As our children grow up, we want them to feel accepted and respected for the singular individual that they are and also truly appreciate others. With hate and bullying inundating our news and entering the homes, schools, and communities across the globe, it is particularly important that we incorporate inclusive lessons, habits, and vocabulary into the everyday living and learning of our young people.
In the classroom, as an early childhood teacher at Germantown Friends School, and at home, as the mother of a toddler and an infant, I have identified best practices to make the celebration of diversity and inclusion a meaningful, lasting part of this important work.
1. Pages and Pages of Understanding
Books. Books. Books. I can't say enough about the power of this traditional medium. Today, we are fortunate to have a robust library of stories available for children that address important lessons, educate about race, diverse traditions, and cultures, or simply have characters that represent the diverse identities of our country, and the world.
There are stories about significant changemakers in history, including those of color; characters of different races and ethnicities; and books featuring a variety of family structures. There are children's books that highlight different religions, beliefs, and traditions. We see characters living in rural areas and busy cities. And we hear true accounts of resilience and fictional tales of children and communities.
Online, at the library, or in a bookstore, you can surely find these books, but it is important that you do just that. While kids may gravitate towards known characters or brands, it is important to make an effort to include these diverse stories in your own library, evening bedtime routine, or trips to the library. Read the stories together, read them as a family, and let your little one flip the pages and explore on their own, taking in the images, colors, symbols, and expressions.
A few favorites:
- It's Ok to Be Different by Todd Parr
- Let's Talk About Race by Julius Lester
- The Colors of Us by Karen Katz
- Strictly No Elephants by Lisa Mantchev
- Whoever You Are by Mem Fox
2. Show and Tell
In addition to exposing children to the richness of people and culture through stories and pictures, you can add depth to these efforts through real-life experiences and memories.
With young children, it can be helpful to start with themselves. Discuss what they enjoy, and what makes them happy. Talk about what they look like, including hair and eye color, and skin tone. Who makes up their family? What are their favorite traditions and foods? As parents, you can also point out what makes you individual and unique. Maybe you have freckles or glasses, or perhaps you grew up with a grandparent in the house or had a best friend who celebrated a different religious tradition. As adults, we serve as examples for our children in so many ways. If we describe our own experiences, children listen, take note, and follow our lead.
Include discussions about friends and family. Maybe your child's classmate has long braids and her cousin has big curls. Or perhaps Grandma speaks a different language and has an accent, and an Auntie who wears a bindi. Identifying unique physical and personality traits and cultural preferences, and allowing kids to ask questions, will foster a culture in which differences are positive and celebrated.
Finally, get out of the house! Depending on where you live, you may be able to visit neighborhoods that have become cultural communities, or various places of worship, restaurants, schools, and museums that feature diverse people and traditions. You can visit towns where the homes and buildings look different from your own. Along with your child, highlight the joyful parts of these visits—bakeries or shops, special smells, music, art, noises, and people. Discuss what about the neighborhood looks familiar to you and what looks unfamiliar.
At our school, early childhood students of all ages explore identity beginning with themselves, drawing self-portraits, mixing their own skin color in paint, and creating other art projects that allow a child to highlight special parts of their appearance or personality. We incorporate family shares in which family members or friends come to class and talk about a special tradition that may be religious, cultural, or completely secular. Kids can see various family structures and learn that no two households are exactly the same. Our pre-kindergarten-aged children visit with and interview members of the community, asking questions about their lives, work, and families.
By exposing children to people who experience lives different from theirs, and visiting places outside of their norm, you can bring about awareness and appreciation—and even more, you can do it as a family.
- Encourage young children to self-reflect and share what they feel makes them special.
- Have children draw pictures or describe similarities and differences to their parents, family, and peers.
- Take walks, visit other neighborhoods, talk to people, and ask questions.
- Attend events and festivals.
3. Let Feelings Speak
Young children often openly share their feelings about an event or situation, but you can also encourage this expression and create an environment where they feel safe voicing what is on their mind. It helps for an adult to also share emotions, using words that are age-appropriate for children. This openness can lend itself to important dialogue about differences and similarities, fair and unfair, and exclusion.
At GFS, talking about feelings is a central part of our daily classroom life, an important practice as we begin to approach race and exclusion in our curriculum. Explore what your child is feeling and share your own reactions and emotions.
"How did it make you feel when you were left out of the game?"
"It made me feel sad when kids said I couldn't play with them."
"It made me feel sad, too."
This acknowledgment of feelings and unfair treatment will help children understand bigger inequalities and approach life with concern and care for other's well-being.
4. Don't be afraid of questions.
As an adult, this can be a tough one. You may not know all of the answers. In fact, you will definitely not know all of the answers. It is important to remember, though, that our reactions, behaviors, and words matter—a lot. Race, gender, family, and religion: these are complex topics and conversations that an adult must face themselves when children ask questions. Embrace questions. Answer them simply or find the answers. Do not overcomplicate your response.
Young children under the age of five do not need or want extensive details. They want to know, Why does that child have darker or lighter skin color or What is that covering the woman's head and chest? Explain that everyone has a unique skin color. Compare the colors of skin in your own family; you will likely see many shades. Share that some people express different beliefs and traditions through clothing or jewelry, like a cross, Star of David, or hijab. Religion and race can be hard to explain, but introducing new words can create a familiarization beyond what they see within their own families and communities.
If you do not know the answer, tell your child that you will research it together. Inquiry and understanding are key in building tolerant, empathetic people and there is no better time than toddlerhood to get started on this.
It is also important for adults to eliminate the taboo of talking about these important topics. Remove the "shhhs" and whispers around topics related to race, gender, religion, or family structure. If something is said that seems embarrassing, correct it, share facts, and ask questions. If you demonstrate that you are comfortable (even if inside you may not be), your children are more likely to be as well.
Along this journey, there will be unkind words said and unfair situations that will arise. Use these experiences as teachable moments and explain why your child's actions or reactions could be improved. Embrace questions and teachable moments with courage. And remember, your actions serve as models.
5. Remind children that they have the power to create change.
Embracing diversity and inclusion extends to standing up for what is right. Help young children understand that their words and actions can have a significant impact on their friends and community. Even though they are little, they have "word power."
Even at a young age, children can be allies. They can speak up, write letters (parents can take dictation), make posters, ask questions, share, and participate. And remember, you can lead by example, modeling these behaviors and actions. Exhibit empathy when someone is not treated kindly. Donate clothing and toys with your child. Include neighbors who may be home alone.
I have enjoyed taking my three-year-old to marches and to vote, showing her that everyone's voice matters and that we can all make a difference. Find something to do together that is meaningful to your family or of interest to your child, from supporting shelter dogs to serving lunch to seniors at the local community center. Your actions will give children the courage to do the same. On the flip side, the act of modeling for your children can also strengthen your own bravery.
As you consider the best ways to integrate lessons of diversity and inclusion into your home life, think about your comfort and biases. Be brave about your own shortcomings or blindspots. Become informed. Read, ask questions, research. You do not need to be an expert and you are not alone. In addition to books, toys, articles, and online resources, your child's teachers can be great sources of information.
As adults, we can help forge a path for our children to be comfortable with embracing differences, recognizing that the world is beautiful because we all contribute something special. Young children can shine their light in their own way, using their unique gifts and talents to make change and build a world filled with acceptance and understanding.